I Talked About Library Design @ Smith College

I was excited to be invited to visit Smith College to talk about library design. Just last week Smith announced that Maya Lin (whose mother is an alum) and Shepley Bulfinch will be partnering on the design of their new library building. I gave my talk to a packed room — quite a heartening turnout, for which I’m very grateful, and which speaks volumes (ha! a library joke!) to the community’s commitment to the library.

Below are my slides and the text of my talk (bold-black-bracketed numbers are slide numbers; bold-hyperlinked-bracketed numbers are endnotes).

Mattern Smith by shannonmattern


Learning From the Library (Without Cracking a Book)

[2] In 2007 Bloomsbury published the English translation of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. I’ll admit right up front that I haven’t read Bayard’s book. But I gather from excerpts, and from what other writers say about it, that Bayard is advocating for “reading” practices that we tend to dismiss as superficial or dishonest because they’re contrary to some idealized notion of a completist “cultural literacy without gaps.” Bayard condones book-skimming, sampling, cover-scanning, even abandoning and forgetting. He argues that these modes of reading-the book-without-really-reading-the-book – particularly if we put them into context within the wide-ranging discussion surrounding books – are valid and valuable means of engaging with literary culture. And, by extension, culture in general.

He writes,

[3] As cultivated people know…, culture is above all a matter of orientation (he’s obviously a bit of a structuralist). Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.

That system, of course, is a network of cultural allusions and social references, of “connections and correlations”; a web of correspondences and a history of ideas.

[4] But it’s also a library. Again, Bayard:

A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements…. The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.

Yes, Bayard’s library is metaphorical. It’s an intellectual construct. But, I’d say, it’s also literal. A literal literary library. Those systems of correspondences and connections that generate cultural literacy are manifested on the book shelf, in the library floor plan, in the database architecture, in the interfaces – even in the access policies and furniture design and firewalls.

[5] Book historians and bibliographers appreciate the book as a material artifact with a biography, and they demonstrate for us what we can learn from a book by reading between and outside the lines. We might take a page from the bibliographers’ manuals, so to speak, and consider what we can learn about a library without cracking its books, opening its flat-file drawers, or accessing its databases.

[6] The literal library, like Bayard’s collective library, is a system with an organization and an aesthetic, an architecture that’s simultaneously intellectual and physical. We skim through the library, like the book, by navigating its floorplans. We scan the library’s “covers,” its facades and finishings. We examine how it’s all put together. And just as we have the freedom to set aside an unengaging book, we might choose to abandon the library, by simply choosing not to visit – or by underfunding or otherwise neglecting it.

[7] I’m not wholeheartedly championing Bayard’s “meta” approach to reading. I’m sure I share with all of you a conviction that there is and always will be tremendous value in close reading and meticulous textual examination, particularly in academic settings like this one. And even the mere suggestion that we don’t really read anymore, or that we don’t need to read, is, well, wrong – and politically risky because it undermines the specialized knowledge, funding, technical infrastructure, and labor required to build and maintain a collection. Such “we don’t read books anymore” claims are fodder for those who naively believe that we don’t need libraries anymore because, hey, we’ve got the Internet.

[8] So, before we move on, allow me to state one more time, loud and clear, that the library collection and the ways in which patrons engage it are central to what makes a library a library. Still, I think Bayard offers us an important reminder about the possibilities of reading between and outside the collection’s billions of lines of text. As I hope to demonstrate in the remainder of my time here this afternoon, we can learn a great deal about learning itself – and about our cultural and institutional values – from the library as place, apart from its wealth of information resources.[1] We can cultivate our own cultural literacy by orienting ourselves within the library system. It’s telling that the Smith College Libraries’ Vision Statement employs a navigational metaphor: the libraries, you say, are the “intellectual crossroads” between the community, scholarly resources, inspiring spaces, and staff; they’re the interchanges where Smith’s communities can engage in study, collaboration, discovery, and discourse.

And while we’re learning more about ourselves by learning about the library, we can also “reverse-engineer” that knowledge. We can use that cultural literacy to foster good design. Reading the library as a system of orientation and organization – as a simultaneously physical and intellectual infrastructure – better prepares us to design a library that can cultivate the literacies (or competences, skills, knowledges) that our publics both need and want, and that we want to define our institutions and societies. [9] “Design thinking” is being thoughtfully integrated into Smith’s curriculum. It’s only fitting that this sensibility should also infuse the design of Smith’s library – and that that library should ultimately promote your design-thinking initiative’s core values: one, intentional “anti-disciplinar[ity],” which acknowledges that the most pressing challenges don’t fall into the domain of any single discipline; and, two, the “[clear] articulation of ‘pathways of practice’” that allow students to “link theory to practice within and beyond the classroom.”[2] A well-designed library seems the ideal place – a commons – to support these interdisciplinary, praxis-oriented endeavors. Ideally, we can design library buildings that we learn both in and from, because the buildings themselves aren’t mere repositories of resources; they’re pedagogical devices themselves.

[10] So, looking back to Bayard, we’re going to borrow some methods and metaphors from the bibliographers and book historians so we can learn from the library without even cracking open its books. In a series of eight lessons, I’ll draw analogies between the anatomy of the book and the topography of the library – to see what we can discover without really reading:

[11] First, just as we might learn about a book based on its position on the shelf and its relationship to its neighboring titles, we might learn about a library based on its site – its placement on campus or in town – and its relationship to the landscape. [12] In the late nineteenth century many newly constructed public libraries were built in civic centers far removed from the cacophony and commerce of urban downtowns; the City Beautiful movement bracketed culture and uplift into its own rarified zone. Meanwhile, college campuses – rarified cultural centers in and of themselves – were emerging with libraries at their physical and symbolic centers. As those campuses have grown and evolved, the libraries’ prime settings have often been compromised by infill development and piecemeal renovations.

[13] Smith’s 1893 master plan by Fredrick Law Olmsted was inspired by the English landscape tradition and focused on a collection of “landscaped rooms” with “buildings approached obliquely along sloping walkways.”[3] The campus library was at its core. Over a century of development has marred that design vision, compartmentalizing the landscape into discrete quads. And that evolution has also altered the visitor’s experience, both as she approaches the library from outside – the library seems to belong to a quad rather than to the entire campus – and as she observes the campus landscape from inside the library. Shepley Bulfinch, in their spring 2014 planning document, advocate for a more “porous building” that will allow for access from Sellye and Burton Lawns, thus reinstating the library as a literal and symbolic campus connector.[4]

[14] Temple University has likewise acknowledged the symbolic and functional significance of centrally siting the library. Temple is working with Snøhetta – an international Norwegian/American firm that’s turned out to be the library architects of the 21st century, the Shepley Bulfinches of our age – to design their library. The building was originally sited on Broad Street, a major North-South thoroughfare in Philadelphia, but was moved to the campus’s core, near its iconic bell tower – a repositioning that will require the razing of several old buildings and the creation of a large quad, with the library anchoring its west side. As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron explains,

Temple is using the $190 million library project to launch a long-overdue, place-making effort…. It will be a classic college ensemble, a stone library overlooking a green lawn, and it promises to transform Temple as we know it from an ad hoc collection of urban buildings, into a more traditional and cohesive campus environment.[5]

The library’s siting thus has tremendous implications for its symbolic value, which in turn plays a key role in refashioning Temple’s institutional identity. The idea of the library as a campus-connector is central to its function, says Temple’s dean of libraries Joseph Lucia:

Librarians are often asked why, in a world of digital information, physical libraries still matter… Libraries have never really been merely about the stuff they house; they have always been about inspiration. They are environments designed to connect people to ideas and call communities together for creative engagement with the life of the mind and the imagination. A great university will always need that kind of space – perhaps now more than ever.[6]

[15] Second, we might study a book’s cover design to discern how it’s constructed as a comprehensive “package” of knowledge or a saleable commodity, who it regards as its audience, and how it draws in that audience. Similarly, we might examine a library’s architectural wrapping, its façade – and broader stylistic choices – as emblematic of its public identity, the way it relates to its physical context, and the way it appeals to its various publics. Some campuses are committed to their Gothic or colonial “house styles,” and require even new construction to adopt “contextual” design – to blend in with the neighbors in reflecting a unified commitment to tradition. Of those libraries that aim for a more contemporary public face, however, “transparency” seems a universal aspiration: these libraries welcome natural light during the day and “glow” like “beacons” at night.

[16] Case in point: the University of Aberdeen’s new library “shimmers during the day and glows softly at night, creating a luminous landmark – a beacon – for the city of Aberdeen.” So says Morten Schmidt of schmidt hammer lassen architects, who also designed the famous “Black Diamond” Royal Library in Copenhagen and the new Urban Mediaspace library in Aarhus, Denmark. Aberdeen’s building, which opened in 2012, serves the world’s fifth oldest English-language university. [17] This rectilinear glass monolith rises from a base of Caithness stone, both referencing and distinguishing itself from nearby granite monuments (this is, after all, Granite City), and houses a twisting eight-story atrium. As Jonathan Glancey wrote in The Guardian, the “building is both icily calm yet restlessly alive, as modern as it is baroque.” The building’s character says a great deal about the contemporary role of the library on a campus with such deep history; and about the relationship between the school and its urban and even geologic contexts.

[18] A little farther south, in Worcester, England, another library opened in 2012. Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios’ The Hive, is a golden honeycombed, seven-celled building. It’s the UK’s first joint university-public library; it serves both the University of Worcester and the Worcester City Council. [19] Its form supposedly references the local pottery tradition and the landscape of the nearby Malvern Hills; [20] while its reflective skin of copper alloy distinguishes the building from its historic neighbors, while also making literal its programmatic identity as a “hive” of intellectual and civic activity. Again, we can learn from the library’s “cover” how it conveys its function and its character to its various publics.

[21] Yet a façade needn’t merely “symbolize.” Aberdeen’s and Worcester’s facades also serve functional roles – to regulate solar gain and heat loss, for instance. But facades can also engage their publics and serve as usable space. [22] Throughout 2014 I had the pleasure of working with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future, an urban policy think-tank, to oversee a design study of New York City’s 211 branch libraries.[7] [23] One of our five finalist teams, led by architect Andrew Berman, focused on using the façade to maximize public engagement. The team proposed enhancing the transparency of the façade – by, say, opening up interior activity to outside viewing, and lighting the exterior – and thereby emphasizing the library’s accessibility. They also promoted what they called the “occupied façade”: incorporating seating and conversation into the building’s façade, where patrons could still access the building’s WiFi, thus extending the reach of the library’s virtual resources outside its walls. From these gestures we can again learn how a library engages with its surroundings – and what aspects of “library-ness” can and can’t be contained by the building’s walls.

[24] Third, just as we might examine a book’s macro-scale structure and the layout of its pages – in other words, its intellectual, physical, and graphical architectures – we might also examine the library’s program – its various functional units and how they relate to one another – and its floorplan. [25] On the ground level of many recently designed libraries we find cafes and event spaces and galleries – active spaces with particular acoustic and circulation requirements, spaces that visitors might want to access without entering the library-proper. Not far from the entrance we usually find service points and group workspaces. Then, farther back or higher up, the stacks and media collections and labs, and, typically near the top – farthest from the public entrances – special collections and contemplative study spaces, which, like their cacophonous counterparts on the ground floor, have their own acoustic and circulation demands: in this case, quiet, calm, still.

[26] But as “libraries” have become “information commons” and “learning centers,” we’re often finding, mixed in with the stacks and tables, more writing and tutoring and advising centers, tech help desks, distance-learning rooms – a variety of spaces that serve the “whole student,” that transform the library into a space that accommodates the entire lifecycle of the research and intellectual development process.[8] The University of Pennsylvania libraries’ Weigle Information Commons, which supports collaborative activities with space and technology, partners with a variety of parallel organizations offering student services: the writing, public speaking, and tutoring centers; undergraduate advisors; the computer center; the Weingarten Learning Resources Center; the Center for Teaching and Learning; the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships; and Career Services. Some institutions have incorporated such services and centers into the library building, recognizing that they’re most appropriately regarded as residing within the intellectual “Commons” of the university, that they’re perhaps best epistemologically and architecturally framed as integral components in the full “lifecycle” of students’ intellectual development.

[27] Where these particular functional units are placed within the library, and what adjacencies are exploited, says a lot about how the library embodies the life of the mind (one that’s housed in a body), how it conceives of the relationship between different pedagogies and student services, and how it gives shape to students’ personal development. We’ll talk a bit more later about specific spaces of student learning, and particularly the integration into the library of more spaces where students don’t merely access, but make media. Our current purpose is to consider what we might learn from the macro-scale structure of the building – and what pedagogies and epistemologies that system of spaces embodies.

Before we move on to our next lesson, however, I want to share another proposal that emerged from our Architectural League branch library design study that has potential implications for library programming and planning. [28] Another of our finalist teams, L+ – which consisted of designers from Brooklyn-based SITU Studio, librarians, graphic designers, and real estate consultants –

[29] offered up a platform for flexible programming, [30] a kit of parts that allows for modular deployment in various sites, [31] which might shift at different times of day or times of year. [32] Other examples of this model include the Uni Library, which has popped up in public spaces in myriad cities around the world, [33] and the Ideas Box, a portable multi-media kit designed by Libraries Without Borders to be deployed for refugee and vulnerable populations. [34] The L+ team emphasized the importance of having a strong graphic identity, strong branding, so potential patrons know they’re encountering “the library” even when those library services have taken shape in unorthodox ways or in unpredictable places. Such flexibility and extendibility also teaches us that libraries are as libraries do – that the library can exist wherever library-like activities are taking place.

Communicating the presence of “library-ness” requires plenty of signals. [35] As L+ and another of the design teams, UNION, reminded us, having a strong institutional identity – a look and feel – is key. [36] We might also look to the former Rangeview Library District, rebranded in 2009 as “anythink.” A book offers similar familiar cues to help us identify and use it. And this brings us to our fourth lesson: [37] just as we might examine the bibliographic conventions that help a reader navigate a text – tables of contents, indices, page numbers – we might also examine analogue navigation aides in the architectural realm, including, for example, wayfinding systems and service points.

[38] While some libraries remain committed to the traditional monolithic service desk – an un-missable, if also potentially off-putting, emblem of librarian-ness – other institutions have minimized their service points, both in scale and in number. [39] Libraries have played around with standing and sitting desks, kiosks, pods, poles, perches; [40] there are Pinterest pages dedicated to the diversity of forms. [41] The University of New South Wales has opted for a “Help Zone,” where patrons can help themselves with self-service check-outs and directional kiosks, yet where roaming staff are also ready to approach patrons to offer assistance.[9] The University’s Director of Information Services Janet Fletcher explains how this new zone has transformed librarians’ service:

By working side-by-side, library staff are “enablers” rather than experts and conversations are less formal and far more collegial. When using computers, library staff have relinquished the mouse and handed over navigation to the customer so that they can learn for themselves…

[42] We can learn from the design of our service points – both physical and staffed and/or virtual – how a library staff regards its professional identity and its relationships to its patrons, and how the library itself can “interface” with those patrons, with or without staff intermediation. While some academic libraries seem to believe that students are more comfortable interfacing with screens, and they have staff at the ready only in the wings or in the background, others advocate that librarians need to reassert their visibility and the vital roles they do, and can, play. Many students, and even faculty, simply aren’t aware of how a librarian can help, or what specialized expertise a librarian brings to the table.

[43] Barnard Library’s former dean, Lisa Norberg, initiated a Personal Library program, through which all first-year students – as well as all academic departments and all dormitory-based student groups – are paired with a librarian who becomes her, or their, “go-to person for all things library-related.” I realize that there are plenty of precedents for such programs – but I mention it here because services like these have spatial implications: they require private spaces for individual consultations, modes of service in which librarians meet students and faculty wherever they are amidst their information resources, whether in the library, in the classroom, or in the dorms.

[44] In a recent symposium on the future of academic libraries at McGill University, Chris Bourg, Director of MIT Libraries, issued the following caveats and advice (and I’ll quote at length):

[Y]ou should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.

And no, I don’t simply mean ensure that the reference desk is visible from the entrance. If you want a truly great library, you have to design spaces that emphasize that librarians have expertise in a huge range of areas vital to scholarship and teaching – from data and metadata, to digital preservation, to publishing, to online learning, to software development, text-mining, project management, and yes even reference.

Ensure your library is designed to make library experts visible and accessible to scholars and students. Include in your designs plenty of information and technology rich environments for faculty and students to collaborate with library experts.[10]

[45] How can we use the library as a teaching tool, to help students and faculty and visiting scholars appreciate the wealth of expertise that librarians possess – and the wealth of resources and services that their libraries have to offer? Those of you who are joining us for the design workshop tomorrow morning will, I hope, recall Bourg’s charge in considering how we might design library spaces that serve as “architectural ambassadors” – as well as orientation tools – to library collections and services and to librarians.

[46] Fifth, we might study genres of text, like catalogs and indices and ledgers, that function primarily to “store content” – recognizing that these texts reveal much more than their data: their form and materiality, and even their “un-designed” design, tell us a great deal about the nature of publishing and bureaucracy, and about the epistemologies of record-keeping. Similarly, there’s much to be learned about our libraries from their storage spaces: open stacks, closed stacks, off-site, and beyond. This section, I’ll admit, might be a bit longer than is warranted – but it’s a current research interest of mine, so I ask you to please indulge me.

[47] That said, I’m certainly not the only person who’s perplexingly provoked by the seeming mundanities of collection storage. [48] Storage has long been a central design feature – there never seems to be enough of it – and it’s often an aesthetic focus for library buildings. [49] The light-filled iron book stacks were a central feature in Henri Labrouste’s celebrated libraries of Paris.  [50] Storage spaces played a central role in the controversy of the planned renovation of the NYPL’s Schwartzman Library. I’ve written about a few other designs, [51] including the 40-anniversary retrofit of Louis Kahn’s library for Philips Exeter Academy and [52] Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 Seattle Public Library, with its book spiral, that prioritize storage of the collection. More recently, [52] TAX arquitectura’s 2006 Biblioteca Jose Vasconcelos in Mexico City and [54] MRVDV’s Book Mountain, which opened just two years ago in a town in the Netherlands, continue to glorify – we might even say fetishize – the stacks. We see similar focus on the aesthetics of storage in some special collections, including [55] Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections, a project completed in 2000; and of course its formal predecessor, the [56] Beinecke at Yale. The epistemological implications of this aesthetic are obvious: these architectures put on display, and make empirical, if not navigable, the wealth of knowledge that the collection represents.

[57] In a new research project on “intellectual furnishings,” which I plan to begin next year, I’ll be exploring the furniture we design and build – or buy, or kludge together – to store, organize, protect, and support our media and media-making. [58] Among those furnishings is the bookshelf. I’m arguing that these structures do work that exceeds the merely functional and aesthetic. They’re

material supports for the delivery of and engagement with media resources, while they also frame organizational systems and embody technical protocols. [59] They scaffold our media technologies in particular ways, inform the way human bodies relate to those media, and give shape to knowledge. They render complex intellectual and political ideas material and empirical. Thus, we can learn from the shelf, the cabinet, the desk, and their arrangement, too.

[60] Even behind-the-scenes storage spaces – those acid-free boxes on grey shelves in the archives – have aesthetic appeal. [61] In my classes on archives and mapping, I often organize field trips in which we take my media studies and design students behind the scenes at various museums and archives and special collections. Amidst the beige and grey, the students not only begin to grasp the scope of an institution’s collection and the breadth of formats it contains, but they also begin to appreciate how value is attached to those materials – and just how much of it lives only in material form, and will likely not be digitized any time soon, if ever.

Even as collections move off-site, I’ve noticed continuing fascination with the aesthetics and politics of storage. There are several recent videos, including some expertly produced documentaries – featuring the Bodleian, [62] the Harvard Depository, [63] and the Corbis Image Vault inside Iron Mountain, a former limestone mine in Western Pennsylvania – that aestheticize remote storage and automated retrieval. Automated book retrieval – there are systems at North Carolina State’s new Hunt Library, [64] the University of Chicago’s new Mansueto Library, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and University of Louisville – are of particular interest. The idea that there are “robots in the library” has piqued people’s interest; [65] Hunt Library actually makes a show of its automated book retrieval system via its ground-floor Robot Alley. But the perhaps perplexing interest in such mundane concerns, I think, is also related to growing academic and popular interest in the materiality of information and media archaeology. [66] We can position these “storage stories” within a larger body of work that attempts to make material, empirical, phenomenological – and thereby comprehensible – a lot of behind-the-scenes informational experiences. It’s part of the trend toward “making visible the invisible,” calling attention to the distribution of information, which has tended to be eclipsed by interest in production and consumption. This we can learn from the library-as-space, too.

[67] Sixth, just as we might study the reading practices through which readers engage with a book – do they sample or read continuously, do they read alone or socially, do they read in print or digital, do they take notes or not? – we might also examine how the library creates spaces that foster different kinds of reading practice, and other forms of media engagement and learning. There’s much we can say here, but I’m going to focus on one key dynamic: [68] the privacy and publicity of reading and media-engagement. Collaboration, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is all the rage. While Temple University President Neil D. Theobald declared that his university’s new library would be a “place for truly collaborative learning,” Joseph Lucia, dean of Temple’s libraries, offered a more nuanced vision: the library would offer a “varied ecosystem” with spaces for quiet study and reading, small group activities, and large-group special events.[11]

[69:B] Cambridge-based HMFH Architects was charged with designing a new library for the Roeper School, a private pre-school-through-12th-grade day school in Birmingham, Michigan. Designer Laura Wernick explains that, initially, the focus was on creating spaces for collaboration. When they shared their plans with students, however – and I can’t stress enough the importance and value of involving students in a library design process – one question emerged repeatedly: “Where do I go to be alone?”[12] [70] Wernick and her colleagues began examining recent cognitive science and psychology research that debunks the “brainstorming myth” and the collaboration-fetishization that has landed us with all these open-plan offices, like the one that I (try and fail to) work in. “We live in an era that elevates openness and connections,” she writes.

We want our workplaces to provide plentiful opportunities for meaningful interactions. We expect our institutions to be open and transparent. We shape our architecture to those goals whether in our open office plans, the transparent façades of our high-rises, or in schools with high levels of interconnectedness. [71] But maybe those students at Roeper are on to something. Maybe in the midst of all that openness and interaction we also need to be creating something else as well. Perhaps we need to be carving out both time and place for solitude.

[72] So they proposed a design that has a lot more enclosed spaces than they’d originally planned for; and they implemented a design scheme they call “The Continuum,” which provides “a spectrum of spaces from large active spaces at one end of the building through a range of small group areas and ultimately to quiet individual study spaces at the other end.” Students can enter the building at their desired “level of activity and social interaction.” The idea of an activity “gradient,” which corresponds to an acoustic gradient, has been implemented in libraries for a while; [73] I did a study several years ago on the evolution of the “sounds” of library work, and the corresponding evolution of library building acoustics.[13]

[74] Johns Hopkins’s new Brody Learning Commons in Eisenhower Library, where I had the pleasure of speaking last spring, likewise features a mix of group and solitary zones, reading spaces and tech labs, a café, as well as the university’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and a conservation lab. [75] Among the most popular spaces in the Commons, which was designed by Shepley Bulfinch and opened in 2012, is the 100-seat Quiet Reading Room featuring a fantastic “cabinet of curiosities” installation by Mark Dion, one of my favorite artists.

[76] That same year – 2012, you may have noticed, was a big year for academic libraries – the University of Pennsylvania opened its Education Commons in an oddly shaped “leftover” space under the bleachers of Franklin Field Stadium. Architect Joel Sanders, who took time to study college students’ work postures, designed a space that accommodates a variety of collegiate ergonomics. “Our design treats the library interior as a wired ‘loungescape’ that… is divided into a series of zones that encourage individual and collaborative learning. The library is further subdivided into a series of flexible areas” – what he calls “micro-climates” – with “different degrees of acoustic, visual, and spatial enclosure.”[14] We find here a concierge desk, a study hall with a variety of furnishing options and a color scheme that references the grassy field outside, and 11 glassed-in meeting rooms – above all of which floats a “cloud” concealing mechanical and lighting equipment. I just love the Cartesian symbolism here: a cloud of knowledge – an oasis of calm and quiet – under the carnal cacophony of the football field. Man, I’m really milking the alliteration.

[77] We can thus learn from the library-as-space how an institution conceives of intellectual labor; how it ergonomically accommodates the sensing-and-making body and intellectually supports the thinking-and-sensing mind. And we can design library spaces that offer a range of environments for holistic learning.

[78] Seventh, just as we might study how a book allows for forms of active engagement – how even historical texts, like almanacs and commonplace books, might’ve invited interaction by providing blank pages or wide margins where readers could make notes – we should also study how libraries incorporate spaces not only for accessing published, produced, and posted media, but also for the creation of new texts, new media, new knowledge. [79] Yes, this is the moment you’ve all been waiting for: this is where we talk about maker spaces and 3D printers and visualization labs and other such “pivotal” “game changers” in the “library space.” I happen to think we’ve blown the “innovation” of such tech-forward programmatic spaces way out of proportion. [80] We don’t need expensive bleeding-edge technology and dedicated labs to make anything; critical “making” can happen in an old-school print shop, in a campus radio station, or even around a seminar table, using nothing but brains and voices.

[81] That said, given that a particular kind of technologized “making” is in the zeitgeist – especially in regard to library design – I do want to acknowledge the potential value of such maker-spaces if we can find a way to thoughtfully integrate them into the library, if we can intelligently frame these programs as part of our libraries’ epistemological and pedagogical infrastructures. [82] I recently wrote an essay about this “epistemological framing,” which has the potential to champion the integration of knowledge consumption and production, thinking and making. Much of the following is drawn from that essay, “Library as Infrastructure,” which appeared last summer in Places, a landscape, architecture, and urbanism journal for which I’m a columnist:

North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library has a maker-space, [83] a GameLab; [84] visualization, theatrical, and musical production studios, a usability lab, and various other production labs and studios; [85] an immersion theater, and, rather eyebrow-raisingly,[86] an Apple Technology Showcase (named, tongue in cheek, after library donors whose surname is Apple). [87] Duke, meanwhile, has just opened The Edge, a “collaborative space for interdisciplinary, data-driven, digitally reliant or team-based research.”

We find similar spaces in public libraries. In my Places article I trace the history of the public-library maker-space and tech lab, including one of the first maker-spaces in tiny Fayetteville, NY; [88] The Labs at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library; [89] Chattanooga’s widely celebrated 4th floor, a 12,000-square-foot “public laboratory and educational facility” and tech incubator; [90] Brooklyn Public Library’s Levy Info Commons; [91] the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library Digital Commons in Washington, D.C., with its DreamLab co-working space; [92] and the Chicago Public Library’s pop-up maker lab, a collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry, with the now-familiar equipment list: open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three.[15]

[93] Some have proposed that libraries — following in the tradition of the Library of Alexandria’s “think tank,” and compelled by a desire to “democratize entrepreneurship” — make for ideal co-working or incubator spaces, where patrons with diverse skill sets can organize themselves into start-ups-for-the-people.[16] [94:B] Others recommend that librarians entrepreneurialize themselves, rebranding themselves as professional consultants in a complex information economy. Librarians, in this view, are uniquely qualified digital literacy tutors; experts in “copyright compliance, licensing, privacy, information use, and ethics”; gurus of “aligning … programs with collections, space, and resources”; skilled creators of “custom ontologies, vocabularies, taxonomies” and structured data; adept practitioners of data mining.[17] Others recommend that libraries get into the content production business. In the face of increasing pressure to rent and license proprietary digital content with stringent use policies, why don’t libraries do more to promote the creation of independent media or develop their own free, open-source technologies? [95] Not many libraries have the time and resources to undertake such endeavors, but NYPL Labs and Harvard’s Library Test Kitchen, have demonstrated what’s possible when even back-of-house library spaces become sites of technological praxis. Unfortunately, those innovative projects are typically hidden behind the interface (as with so much library labor). Why not bring those operations to the front of the building, as part of the public program?

[96:B] Of course, with all these new activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings must incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, acoustical conditions, etc., to accommodate multiple sensory registers, modes of working, postures and more. [97] These new physical infrastructures create space for an epistemology embracing the integration of knowledge consumption and production, of thinking and making. Yet sometimes I have to wonder, given all the hoopla over “making”: are tools of computational fabrication really the holy grail of the knowledge economy? What knowledge is produced when I churn out, say, a keychain on a MakerBot? I worry that the boosterism surrounding such projects — and the much-deserved acclaim they’ve received for “rebranding” the library — [98] glosses over the neoliberal values that these technologies sometimes embody. Neoliberalism channels the pursuit of individual freedom through property rights and free markets — and what better way to express yourself than by 3D-printing a bust of your own head at the library, or using the library’s CNC router to launch your customizable cutting board business on Etsy?[18] While librarians have long been advocates of free and democratic access to information, I trust that they’re helping their patrons to cultivate a critical perspective regarding the politics of “technological innovation” — and the potential instrumentalism of makerhood. Sure, Melvil Dewey himself was part of this instrumentalist tradition, too. But our contemporary pursuit of “innovation” promotes the idea that “making new stuff” = “producing knowledge,” which can be a dangerous falsehood.

[99] I talk a lot in my article about the role of entrepreneurialism in the library, and about the value of maintaining some spaces in the library as spaces of exception – spaces that embody values other than productivity, profitability, individualism. “We can accommodate both spaces for entrepreneurship and spaces of exception,” I argue, “provided the institution has a strong epistemic framing that encompasses both. This means that the library needs to know how to read itself as a social-technical-intellectual infrastructure.” [100] Smith already happens to have such a values-based intellectual framework for its own DesignLab@Smith, which is conceived as an “intentionally anti-disciplinary” space, an opportunity to imagine the laboratory, a space for the experimental, collaborative production of knowledge, outside of the sciences. Given its epistemological and methodological framing – that fact that such a resource belongs to no particular field of study; instead, it belongs to the Commons – such a lab is a prefect candidate for inclusion in the library.

[101] Some libraries and librarians are also presenting themselves as the providers of that epistemic framing for others around campus, particularly for multimedia production – what some call “multimodal scholarship” or “digital humanities” – across the curriculum. The library is a natural home for media-production facilities and labs and support services, argues Joan Lippincott of the Coalition of Networked Information, because the library as a unit “serves all of the institution’s disciplines”; some departments and programs simply don’t have the resources to provide such tools and services for themselves.[19] “Often faculty and students don’t realize what specialized technologies and expertise is available in the library,” Lippincott says, and she suggests that the library space can be designed to highlight the library’s technological and support resources – and to highlight librarians’ capacity to help faculty provide an appropriate “epistemic framing” and pedagogical strategy for “making,” both high and low-tech, across the curriculum.

[102] In this, the library is more of a pedagogical and curricular partner than a support service. Librarians can work with faculty to promote and support multimedia assignments across the curriculum, and can consult with faculty on finding new alliances between library resources and services – from data sets to archival materials – and what and how faculty teach.[20] Lippincott and colleagues from North Carolina State and the University of Pennsylvania note that collaboration between librarians and faculty on curricular innovation often “leads to in-depth discussions of pedagogical objectives and the quality of student work.”[21]

[103] These support services also have space needs in the library, and librarians’ pedagogical and curricular conversations with faculty also illuminate learning space needs – both in the library and elsewhere around campus.[22] Thus, in considering how to design a library that reflects the integration of thinking and making, that provides a solid epistemic framing for a variety of means of “making” knowledge,” planners have to consider pedagogy and curriculum, too. They might even use the occasion of library planning to spark a discussion about how – and what and where – faculty and librarians will teach in the future.

[104] Finally, we might regard a book as a historical artifact, as an emblem of the state of publishing at the time of its creation, and as a representation of the intellectual and cultural and political-economic historical contexts from which it emerged. Similarly, we might look at the library as an exhibit of its own institutional and cultural and intellectual histories. In particular, the academic library’s special collections often embody its core values and encapsulate its history. This is certainly the case at Smith, with its rich women’s history collections.

Despite the fact that these collections connect contemporary researchers to the “enduring scholarly values” and research traditions they embody, notes Francous Blouin in a 2010 issue of RBM, “the importance of these settings to scholarship has seldom been cause for much reflection.”[23] I reflected on these very issues in a plenary talk I gave at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section gathering at the American Library Association conference last year. I met Martin at that conference, which led to my being here today. And in my talk I highlighted the importance of the aesthetic experience in the special collections library. I argued there, as I have here today, that aesthetics are an integral part of the teaching and research – as well as the “library work”: the processing and preservation, cataloging and curating – that take place in special collections. [105] I argued that even the seemingly anti-aesthetic aspects of the special collection – the gray metal shelving and study tables and conservation labs – do, or can, embody an aesthetic, a sensory experience, that enhances the various programmatic functions the institutions serves, and can even serve as a means of advocacy for those functions.

I’ve spoken already about storage spaces and about the pedagogical value of taking students into the stacks. [106] And I’ve talked about classrooms and public programming spaces, which create opportunities for the handling and activation of materials, [107] affording faculty and students the ability to bring those materials alive in group settings, via a variety of pedagogical techniques, or perhaps through performances. [108] Ideally, careful attention is paid to furnishings and lighting and display technology that lend themselves to flexible use.

[109] Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. This is in keeping with John Overholt’s proposal that the future of special collections will encompass both “disintermediation” – the collections’ “unmooring” from librarians’ “organizational and interpretive contexts – as well as their creative “transformation.”[24] [110] Several years ago I wrote about the renovation of Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which has become home to a variety of programs in which the collection is activated. [111] When poet Christina Davis became curator of the room in 2008, she introduced group listening sessions and a works-in-progress series, among other events. [112] When these open events are not in session, the uses of the room range from “quiet study, perusal of literary magazines, the research of rare material (broadsides, manuscripts, chapbooks), listening to archival recordings,… and (yes) writing poems.”[25] [113] “The latter is, to my mind,” Davis told me, “the surest sign of the success of the room: It means that scholarship and the art-form it hopes to perpetuate have come full circle.”

[114] Special collections and rare book conservation spaces also have their own aesthetic appeal and pedagogical potential. [115] When I’ve taken my students to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. At the New York City Municipal Archives, we watched a photography conservator peel apart 80-year-old homicide scene photos from the NYPD; we watched a print conservator “float” a 400-year-old Dutch document in a tub of wood pulp; we [116] we handled an acid-free box custom-built for a rusty switchblade found amongst the police department’s records. The organic materiality of media is quite a revelation to many of these supposed “digital natives.” [117] And even the material work of preserving the digital – of practicing digital forensics, making sure to regularly spin the back-up hard drives, or reformatting video archives to keep pace with evolving best practices – is illuminating for students to observe. These backstage activities have such great pedagogical potential – and there’s demonstrated interest. What’s more, making this activity visible has the potential to manifest, and thereby advocate for, the critical, specialized work that takes place in special collections. [118] Not all institutions have beautiful conservation facilities like the Morgan Library’s Thaw Conservation Center, but there have to be ways to allow different publics to experience the aesthetics, and thus the politics, of the work of conservation.

[119] Consider also spaces of exhibition. The unique, auratic objects in archive or rare book library lend themselves to presentation behind glass – [120] but exhibition spaces can serve the entire library, highlighting faculty and student work, or bringing in relevant displays from outside the institution. Of course putting materials in vitrines and display cases emphasizes the visual at the expense of the other senses, and thereby limits the pedagogical “channels” that we can use to think with or through these materials – but in some cases this is the best means to make a collection’s presence, and availability, known.

In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas. [121] The Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale repositioned its exhibition spaces outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter.[26] Such exhibitions not only highlight collection materials, but they also have the potential to model scholarly methodology and intellectual frameworks; they can show students how to put objects in conversation with one another and make inferences or draw conclusions from historical texts and primary resources.

[122] Of course there are many more lessons we can learn from the book historians – and many more ways in which we can apply those lessons to the design of our library buildings. But as someone who began, 50 minutes ago, by arguing in favor of skimming and skipping, I think I’ve demanded more than enough of your concentrated attention. So I’ll close by acknowledging one additional meta-textual element of the library whose design we should consider in relation to the design of our physical library spaces. [123] I’m talking about the library’s digital interface, which, if done well, could serve as a map to – and as public relations for – the physical collection and in-person services. You’ll note that I’m not showing any examples here, and that’s because I’m hard-pressed to find any exemplary library interfaces that are functional and attractive. There’s much work to be done in this field. A well-designed library interface might be the only space in which patrons will engage with the institution, but it could also function as a virtual welcome mat to the library, drawing patrons through its doors. The digital interface could help to render a physical space legible, navigable, enticing, inspiring; it could be, as Bayard might say, a critical “means of orientation” to the library proper, and to the epistemological and cultural systems it reflects through its on-site architecture. [124] The virtual and the physical library are entwined dimensions of that collective library, that system of knowledge, that give shape to learning, to thought, and to our core cultural values.

*   *   *

[1] As librarian and library historian David Kaser identifies four frameworks we can use to study American academic library buildings: through an archaeological lens, as “artifacts that reflect and elucidate a functional requirement of their times”; through an educational history lens, as means “to understand the shaping influences of modifications in American university pedagogy”; through an architectural and technological history lens, as products of “new building materials or innovative construction techniques”; or through an architectural history lens, or as exemplars of the “history of an art form” (David Kaser, The Evolution of the American Academic Library Building (Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997): 1-2).

[2] Smith Faculty, “Design Thinking and the Liberal Arts: A Framework for Re-Imagining a Liberal Arts Education” (October 7, 2014): 8.

[3] Shepley Bulfinch, Smith College, Nielson and Young Libraries and Alumnae Gymnasium, Pre-Planning Phase (May 2014): 16.

[4] Shepley Bulfinch, Smith College, Nielson and Young Libraries and Alumnae Gymnasium, Pre-Planning Phase (May 2014): 19.

[5] Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline: Temple’s Plan Comes Together With New Focus on Library” Philadelphia Inquirer (January 24, 2015):

[6] Hillel Hoffman, “New Academic Library Will Redefine Temple Campus and Academic Experiences” [press release] Temple University News Center (December 11, 2014):

[7] See my student Laura Sanchez’s “Redesigning Libraries” (2015), a summary of major themes that emerged from the design study:

[8] Thomas Sens, “12 Major Trends in Library Design” Building Design + Construction (December 1, 2009):

[9] Janet Fletcher, “Breaking Down the Barriers – The No Desk Academic Library” (July 2011): See also Linda Gunter and Cindy Snyder, “Reference and Information Services Redesign at The Libraries of The Claremont Colleges” Council on Library and Information Resources Report 139:

[10] Chris Bourg, “The Once and Future Librarian” Feral Librarian (March 18, 2015:

[11] Hillel Hoffman, “New Academic Library Will Redefine Temple Campus and Academic Experiences” [press release] Temple University News Center (December 11, 2014):

[12] Laura Wernick, “Quiet, Please” Architecture Boston 18:1 (Spring 2015):

[13]  Shannon Mattern, “Resonant Texts: Sounds of the Contemporary American Public Library,” The Senses & Society 2:3 (Fall 2007): 277-302.

[14] Joel Sanders in Phil Morehart, “The Future Today” American Libraries (February 26, 2015):;

[15] We also now have the Tampa-Hillsborough County Hive; the Free Library of Philadephia’s Maker Jawn; and Innisfil Ontario’s ideaLAB. See Greg Landgraf, “Making Room for Informal Learning” American Libraries (February 26, 2014):

[16] Emily Badger, “Why Libraries Should Be the Next Great Start-Up Incubators,” Atlantic Cities (February 19, 2003).

[17] Stephen Abram in Joseph Janes, Ed., Library 2020: Today’s Leading Visionaries Describe Tomorrow’s Library (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2013): 46; Courtney Greene in Library 2020: 51.

[18] See David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[19] Joan K. Lippincott, “The Future of Teaching and Learning” American Libraries (February 26, 2015):

[20] The library’s promotion of multimedia class projects requires outreach to faculty who might not have otherwise considered thinking beyond the traditional seminar paper, or who might be intimidated about supporting or evaluating such work. The library’s initial outreach might include promoting experimental pedagogical strategies and assignments – and the library’s ability to support this experimentation – in faculty meetings, through visits with department curriculum committees or individual faculty members, or through faculty professional development workshops.

[21] The Weigle Information Commons also holds an annual Engaging Students through Technology symposium, where faculty highlight their innovative assignments and discuss how the library has provided, and could provide, support; and where panels of students share their own work. “This annual symposium,” Lippincott and her colleagues explain, “helps faculty understand the pedagogical objectives of new media assignments, how partnering with the library is a good strategy for achieving them, and the impact of such assignments on student learning.”

[22] Joan Lippincott, Anu Vedantham & Kin Duckett, “Libraries as Enablers of Pedagogical and Curricular Change” Educause October 27, 2014):

[23] Francis X. Blouin, Jr., “Thoughts on Special Collections and Our Research Communities” RBM 11:1 (Spring 2010): 25. The 2014 World Library and Information Congress promises to feature a session focusing on “innovative design solutions for the use, presentation, teaching and exhibition of special collections as well as address appropriate security issues and storage facilities”; see “Call for Papers: Session Title: Special Places for Special Collections: for 80th World Library and Information Congress, Lyon France, August 16-22, 2014”:

[24] Overholt: 17-18.

[25] C. Davis, personal communication, October 1, 2009.

[26] Jae Jennifer Rossman “Build It and S/He Will Come: A Reflection on Five Years in a Purpose-Built Special Collections Space” RBM 14:2 (Fall 2013): 111-120.

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